Leisure travelers eager to escape Maine after a rough winter boosted traffic in March at Portland’s airport, and helped the airport make up lost ground during its first quarter.

In March, 64,414 people boarded flights at Portland International Jetport, which represents a 6.7 percent increase from the 60,393 who boarded planes in March 2013, according to Paul Bradbury, the airport’s director. The total number of passengers, which includes those who arrive at Portland’s airport, was 128,095 in March, an increase of 3.9 percent from the same month a year before.

Those March figures made up for lower than anticipated passenger numbers for January and February, which were due to the weather conditions, Bradbury said. There were 338 fewer flights out of Portland during the first three months of 2014 than the same period last year. Despite that, the number of passengers boarding flights in Portland during that time was 162,002, a nearly 1.3 percent increase from the 159,981 boarding passengers during the same period in 2013.

Nearly 1.7 million passengers arrived or departed from the airport in 2013, a 33.7 percent increase from the 1.3 million that passed through the airport in 2003, according to data provided by Bradbury.

“It’s been a really tough winter. It’s been expensive and punitive due to flight cancellations … but there’s a golden side to that for airports,” Bradbury said Wednesday. “When you have a tough winter people want to get out of town come early spring, and we saw that in the numbers for March.”

Though it’s hard to say with certainty, Bradbury guesses the increase in March traffic was due to more people leaving Maine on leisure trips. One metric that hints at this is the revenue from gift vendors in the airport. While total passenger traffic was up nearly 4 percent, the vendors reported only a 1 percent increase in revenue in March, which suggests the additional passengers were people from Maine leaving Maine – travelers who aren’t interested in buying a sweatshirt emblazoned with a lobster.

Also noteworthy is that Southwest Airlines’ Saturday non-stop flights to Orlando during March were 88.3 percent full on average, Bradbury said.

“These weren’t highly marketed flights,” Bradbury said. “People found these flights on Southwest and filled them.”

Annual passenger traffic at the Portland International Jetport

Total passenger traffic at the Portland International Jetport, which includes passengers boarding and arriving at the airport, increased 33.7 percent in the last 10 years, from roughly 1.3 million in 2003 to nearly 1.7 million in 2013.

 
SOURCE: Portland International Jetport
INTERACTIVE: T.E.D. Andrick

Overall, the “load factor” – the industry term for how full a plane is when it takes off – of flights leaving Portland’s airport in March 2014 was 83 percent, up from 73 percent the same month the year before, Bradbury said. Important to note, however, is that airlines reduced the number of seats on flights by 5.9 percent since last year, so there were fewer seats to fill, he said.

“What does that mean? Those planes were more full and the airlines are doing well optimizing this market,” Bradbury said. “It’s a win-win for the passengers and the airlines, and that’s what we’re seeing nationwide. They’re not adding flights; they’re trying to get better capacity on the flights they already have.”

While fewer empty seats on planes are good for the airport and airlines, there is one downside for passengers, Bradbury said.

“The downside is the empty middle seat is gone,” he said with a laugh. “But what we all win from it is lower airfares. It’s not good to have an industry where the airlines are not making any money. It’s good for everybody. It’s good for the overall economy.”

Staff Writer Whit Richardson can be reached at 791-6463 or at:

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Twitter: whit_richardson